Tuesday, 4 August 2020

CD Reviews - August 2020

Alfredo Piatti (1822-1901) is chiefly known today as a cellist, and his Twelve Caprices Op. 25 for solo cello are a staple of the cello repertoire. However, he was steeped in operatic orchestral playing from a very early age, employed from the age of eight under the supervision of his father Antonio who led the local orchestra. Donizetti was a close neighbour and family friend, and the young Alfredo was exposed to the world of opera from the beginning, so it’s natural that when he embarked on his solo touring career in his early twenties, he took with him Fantasies that drew on well-known operatic melodies to show off his virtuosic flair. In their second volume of these Operatic Fantasies, cellist Adrian Bradbury and pianist Oliver Davies (who sadly passed away on 2 July 2020) give us four Fantasies based on operas by Donizetti, as well as ‘Rimembranze del Trovatore’ from Verdi’s opera, and the Capriccio sur des Airs de Balfe, which uses three hit numbers from operas by Michael William Balfe (1808-1870). As one would expect from the source repertoire, all of the Fantasies accentuate the dramatic as well as the lyricism of the melodies, and the cello’s singing tone is ideal for this. So in the Introduction et Variations sur un thème de Lucia di Lammermoor, the theme is taken from the opera’s climactic dramatic final aria, and after an introduction of his own invention, Piatti takes us through increasingly virtuosic variations, always exploiting the anguish and grief of the original aria. Bradbury tackles the virtuosic demands with panache, and brings out that sense of anguish in plaintive tones. The Rondò sulla Favorita, from Donizetti’s La Favorite, quotes from five beautifully lyrical numbers from the opera, and the Souvenir de l’opera Linda di Chamounix is similarly packed full of great melodies. In the days before recordings, these delightful showpieces would have delighted audiences and provided a great boost for popularising the great opera hits of the day. The Parafrasi sulla Barcarola del Marino Faliero takes the virtuosity to new heights with dazzling scale passages, ringing harmonics and expeditions to the very limit of the top string. Bradbury’s technique is equally dazzling, yet however showy the pyrotechnics get, he always returns to a simple, warm tone for the lyrical melodies. Turning to Verdi’s Trovatore, we get five numbers from the opera, and here, the piano has a little more to do, sometimes ‘singing’ the aria beneath the cello’s filigree decoration. The Capriccio sur des airs de Balfe finishes the disc, drawing on three joyously lyrical arias from Balfe’s operas.  Bradbury and Davies worked together extensively in exploring and in some places reconstructing some of this repertoire, with Davies preparing piano reductions from original orchestral scores, and Bradbury completing a cadenza, and this close study and working relationship shows in their performances. I somehow missed the first volume of these delightful Operatic Fantasies, and will definitely be seeking that out. In these strange times, these beautiful melodies, decorated with such virtuosic abandon and performed so effortlessly, provide the perfect balm. 

Back in July 2017, I reviewed a fascinating recording by Catalina Vicens, inspired by performing on what was possibly the oldest harpsichord, dating from the 16thcentury.  For her latest recording, Organic Creatures, she takes us back even further, into the 12th, 13thand 14thcenturies, performing this time on organs from that period, some original and some reproductions, including the Van Eyck organ, an organ reconstructed based on the painting ‘The Ghent Altarpiece’ by Jan Van Eyck (1432). The music on this two-disc set is a mixture of repertoire from those early centuries, including music by Hildegard of Bingen, Pérotin, Dunstaple and Isaac, as well as many anonymous works. These are interspersed by compositions by Vicens herself, as well as contemporary composers including Ivan Moody and Olli Virtaperko.  She is also joined on some tracks by fellow organists Cristophe Deslignes and Jankees Braaksma, to particularly striking effect in the lightly swinging Presul nostril temporis, an anonymous 13thcentury piece. The soundworld here is fascinating, with the breathy sound of bellows and occasional surprising twists and bends, creating an unexpected range from such early instruments. With forty tracks spread over the two discs, there isn’t space here for commentary on every piece, and the booklet notes, whilst beautifully designed, provide little information on the music, much of which will be unfamiliar to all but the most hardened medievalists. Heinrich Issac’s (c.1450-1517) stately Si dormiero and Pérotin’s (fl.c.1200) twisting and turning Organum: Alleluia are delightful, but it is perhaps some of the anonymous works here that are the most intriguing. These range from the highly virtuosic and more substantial 14thcentury gem, Chominciamento di gioia which forms the centrepiece of the first disc, to the weirdly spooky Audi, pontus; audi, tellus, and the persistent drone and dying bellows of Unicornus captivator, both also 14thcentury. Vicens’ own pieces complement the programme well, as if almost improvisatory comments on the instruments and the other works. Her Creation (or the nation of creatures) is the most striking, with its vibrating harmonic clashes and ethereal whistling. Of the other contemporary pieces, Carson Cooman’s (b.1982) dancing Nova Cantiga: Rondeau is very effective, as is Olli Virtaperko’s (b.1973) touching Lamento of Ananias. Ivan Moody’s (b.1964) Inperaytriz de la ciutat joyosa is an interesting enough improvisatory exploration, whereas Prach Boondiskulchok’s (b.1985) strangely titled Squonk Diptych is more inventive, and it’s second part Chacona, with its unraveling rhythms, knocks and squeaks is the piece that stretches the bounds of the instrument most. There is a lot here to take in, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend listening to the two full discs back to back, but this is an expertly performed and conceived project, well worth exploration. 

Various. 2020. Organic Creatures: Medieval Organs Composed - Decomposed - Recomposed. Catalina Vicens. Compact Discs (2). Consouling Sounds. SOUL0139.

Classical repertoire on the saxophone is not everyone’s cup of tea, but personally I love its lyrical potential and rounded tone. Hearing familiar repertoire on an unexpected instrument can add something refreshing, so I was looking forward to exploring saxophonist Gerard McChrystal’s new collection, Solas (the Gaelic word for light). Even more unusually, perhaps, he is accompanied throughout by the organ, played by Christian Wilson, which adds another dimension to the soundworld. And furthermore, most of the repertoire here is performed on the lesser heard (at least in a solo context) sopranino and soprano saxophones, with the alto sax making an appearance for just two numbers at the end of the disc. The disc opens with a Sonata No. 1 by Leonardi Vinci (1690-1730), originally for flute, but here McChrystal’s high trumpety sopranino sax, setting proceedings off with a bright and energetic flair. The Adagio from Haydn’s String Quartet No. 1 follows, with a reverent opening on the organ, followed by the melody ringing out on the rich soprano sax, and McChrystal’s tone here is touchingly warm. The Sonata No. 6 by Nicolas Chédeville (1705-1782) is from a set of six, ‘Il pastor fido’, sneakily passed off by Chédeville as being by Vivaldi, only unmasked as untrue in 1990. Nevertheless, the sonata is a delightful Baroque miniature, originally for recorder, and is played here on the sopranino sax, again with that bright, trumpet-like sound. From there, we enter the world of Handel, and the glorious Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne (Eternal Source of Light Divine), originally for voice and trumpet, here a duet for sopranino and soprano sax (both played by McChrystal), creating a beautifully blended sound as the two instruments take the languid melody over from one another. There’s more Handel to come, with the sensuous aria, ‘Cara sposa, amante cara, dove sei?’ from Rinaldo, and a Violin Sonata in G minor. The aria is given to the sopranino, which McChrystal makes sing with plaintive passion, whilst the soprano sax takes the Sonata, and its more mellow tone suits this beautifully, with McChrystal tastefully ornamenting Handel’s simple lines, particularly in the Adagio. There are two more contemporary works here, firstly Green, from Darkness into Light, by Barbara Thompson (b.1944), originally composed for sax quartet, and then A Brief Story of Peter Abelard by James Whitbourn (b.1963). Green opens with gently lilting spread organ chords, before the soprano sax enters with a beautifully melismatic line souring over the top, twisting and turning. Whitbourn’s piece is a set of variations on a hymn tune by the 11thcentury medieval philosopher, poet and musician, Peter Abelard, with more rhythmic energy and varied interplay between the organ and soprano sax. The disc concludes with the arrival of the darker alto saxophone, after the bright tones of the higher instruments. Firstly, the Choral phrygien by French composer Jehan Alain (1911-1940), a contemporary of Messaien sadly lost at an early age in the Second World War. Dark and sombre, McChrystal’s alto sax here is mournful and full of soul, setting up the mood well for the final piece, Purcell’s When I am laid in earth from Dido and Aeneas, to which the melancholic tone of the alto sax is beautifully suited. In terms of programming, some of the brighter pieces might have served better as a conclusion, but nevertheless, this is a great selection, and in particular, as a showcase for the higher members of the sax family, this is to be highly recommended.  

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, August 2020)

Monday, 13 July 2020

CD Reviews - June & July 2020

Richard Strauss’ (1864-1949) Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 (Alpine Symphony) is a fabulous piece of extended tone poem writing, rather than a conventional symphony.  It requires a huge orchestra, including wind and thunder machines, cowbells, and the heckelphone (a member of the oboe family, similar to a cor anglais).  Yet it’s not just an overblown orchestral romp – there is some beautifully subtle music here too, and Strauss captures the drama and danger of the mountains, as well as the sheer beauty and simplicity of an alpine meadow, from sunrise to sunset. Vasily Petrenko with the Oslo Philharmonic is a revelation here in the third of their Strauss recordings – all the detail of this phenomenal journey is there, but there is always a sense of direction and forward momentum. The big, brassy moments are powerful, but never overblown, yet there is some beautifully delicate solo string playing, wandering by the stream in the forest, and the arrival at the summit is lushly climactic. In the ‘Vision’ that follows, Petrenko steers a steady path through the meandering harmonic instability, and the storm is dramatic and suitably scary, before a warm sunset and subdued sink into the night. Petrenko and the Oslo Philharmonic follow this masterpiece with a passionate reading of Strauss’ earlier tone poems, Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24 (Death and Transfiguration). The music depicts a dying artist reflecting back over his life, before reaching ultimate transfiguration in heaven. A consistent theme in Strauss’ tone poems is that idea of our hero defeated in the here and now, but somehow attaining victory, here in a final blaze of C major. Again, Petrenko is alert to detail here, but also the essential trajectory of Strauss’ story-telling arc. Highly recommended.

Strauss, R. 2020. Eine Alpensinfonie, Op. 64 & Tod und Verklärung, Op. 24. Oslo Philharmonic, Vasily Petrenko. Compact Disc. Lawo Classics LWC1192.

I reviewed Ibrahim Aziz’s solo viola da gamba album last year (here), and he’s now back, joined by harpsichordist Masumi Yamamoto in a recording of works for the two instruments by Georg Friedrich Handel (1685-1759). Here we have a mixture of his works transcribed by Handel himself, and also by Aziz from Sonatas originally for violin, and a keyboard Suite, as well as one Sonata attributed to Handel, but possibly by Johann Kress (1685-1728). But no matter, Aziz owns them for the viola da gamba with a beautifully warm tone and delicate ornamentation. The balance between Aziz and Yamamoto on harpsichord is well-judged, and despite some weighty double-stopping in the Allegro of the G major Sonata, for example, the light harpsichord is never overpowered. The Largo of this same Sonata is a beautiful gem, and Aziz makes his instrument ring with great energy in the final virtuosic Allegro. Aziz includes a stately Prélude in the French style from a Suite by Sainte-Colombe le Fils (c.1660-1720?), once again showing off his resonant tone and agility. Yamamoto follows with Handel’s Suite No. 4 for harpsichord, playing with vigour and precision in the opening Fuga, a flowing energy in the central Courante, and a joyful bounce to the final Gigue. Another transcription by Aziz next, a Prelude from one of Handel’s keyboard Suites, making particular use of the lower reaches of the instrument, again with that ringing, rich tone. The duo are reunited for the remainder of the disc, in another Aziz transcription of a keyboard Suite, and a final Sonata. The Suite concludes in a striking Chaconne, allowing both players to demonstrate their virtuosity. The Sonata, for Viola da Gamba and Obbligato Harpsichord puts the right hand of the harpsichord together with the viola da gamba in a melodic duet, particularly impressive in the two Allegros, giving the disc a suitably energetic and virtuosic conclusion. This is a delightful collection, and the two players’ commitment to and command of this repertoire shine throughout. 

Handel, G. F. 2020. Works for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord. Ibrahim Aziz, Masumi Yamamoto. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR91.

Cellist Rohan de Saram is now 81, although this disc was recorded back in 2012, when he was a mere 73 years old. Born in Sheffield to Sri Lankan parents, de Saram studied with Gaspar Cassadó (1897-1966), as well as Cassadó’s teacher, Pablo Casals (1876-1973), and this heritage goes right through this recital, with transcriptions from both of them, as well as the disc’s title piece, Requiebros, by Cassadó himself, played here with clear passion and affection. Cassadó’s transcription of Granados’ Intermezzo from his opera Goyescas is another delightful gem, again played with gentle warmth. There are some old favourites here, such as Saint-Saëns’ Le cygne from Le carnaval des animaux, and Casals’ transcription of Fauré’s exquisite song, Après un rêve, both beautifully performed with touching simplicity. Yet de Saram’s commitment to performing contemporary works is also reflected, with premiere recordings of Chasse au moment by Oliver Frick (b.1973), and Toshio Hosokawa’s (b.1955) Lied III. The former is a mercurial attempt to capture a sequence of fleeting moments, and is highly atmospheric and evocative. Hosokawa aims to make a connection between the lieder of Schubert and his own musical traditions, and the result contrasts sustained, almost lyrical moments for the cello with sudden angular interjections by both cello and piano, made equally effective here by both players – de Saram is accompanied effortlessly throughout the disc by pianist Junko Yamamoto. Manuel de Falla’s Suite populaire espagnole originated as a suite for violin and piano, and six of the seven original movements were arranged by Maurice Maréchal for cello and piano. The piano accompaniment often mimics the guitar, and the themes emanate from different areas in Spain, from the Murcian El paño moruno, through the beautiful Andalusian lullaby, Nana, to the rhythmic character of Jota, from Aragon. Similarly, later in the collection, we have Schumann’s Fünf Stücke im Volkston, Op. 102, and here the folk-style influence is seen in the unusual rhythmic structures. In both sets, de Saram enjoys the rhythmic interest, whilst bringing out the folk melodies with a warm singing tone. Ravel’s Piece en forme de habanera is another popular encore piece, with its Cuban infused rhythms, and Saints-Saëns’ Allegro appassionata, Op. 43 that ends the disc also allows for a greater show of brilliance. This is a recital of exemplary performances, made all the more fascinating given the history and connections to some of the great traditions of twentieth century cello playing.

Various. 2020. Requiebros. Rohan de Saram, Junko Yamamoto. Compact Disc. First Hand Records FHR97.

Russian-born pianist Elisaveta Blumina moved to Germany in her teens, and whilst (as she points out in the notes for her latest double CD release) young pianists in Russia are often schooled in Austrian and German classical repertoire, she feels very much that Russian and Soviet music is ‘in her blood’. So this collection explores that heritage, beginning with Scriabin’s Five Preludes, Op. 16. These beautifully colourful miniatures (whilst probably not a synesthete himself, he was very much influenced by the concept, making strong associations between keys and specific colours, for example) show the influence of Chopin, but with hints of Scriabin’s stretching use of harmony. Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives that follow are equally fleeting miniatures, yet Blumina captures the individual moods wonderfully, even though none last for more than two minutes – she treats us to six here out of the complete set of twenty. Blumina has championed the revival of the music of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), a Polish-Jewish composer who fled the Nazis and spent the rest of his life in the Soviet Union. Here we have just two short Fugues, dedicated to Ludmila Berlinskaya, and the story goes that Weinberg wrote them for Ludmila who had forgotten to prepare two fugues for her homework at the Conservatory – she handed them in, but received very bad marks for them, perhaps because of their quirky yet subtle individuality, combined with some serious ‘rule-breaking’! The remainder of the first disc is given over to Griogori Frid’s (1915-2012) Hungarian Album, Op. 54. These are delightful character pieces, capturing evocative scenes such as The Amusement Park, an Evening at the River, At the Zoo, and a walk In the Forest. The longest here, at four and a half minutes, is a watery flowing Broad Danube, in great contrast to the bouncy Excursion outdoors with Hungarian Friends. These are not virtuosic pieces, but they require delicacy and intimate touch, as well as that ability once again to distil a mood in just a few moments, all of which Blumina excels at here. The second, shorter disc consists of twenty-two out of Giya Kancheli’s (1935-2019) 33 Miniatures for piano. The CD was recorded in 2018 when Kancheli was still alive, and Blumina discussed the pieces with him, particularly his original very slow tempi for some of the pieces. She clearly has a great affection for these warmly sentimental fragments drawn from the Georgian composer’s film music, and this is their first recording. They stand in stark contrast to the more incisive, angular music of the first disc, a welcome addition here, and overall, this collection of fleeting backward glances to Blumina’s homeland is a varied tribute to the power of the miniature to move and capture a mood or emotion in a moment.

Various. 2019. Memories from home. Elisaveta Blumina. Compact Discs (2). Deutschlandradio/Dreyer Gaido CD 21120.

Violinist Clare Howick joins pianist Simon Callaghan for a survey of British Violin Sonatas, and there are a surprising number to choose from – Tasmin Little recently released her third volume of them. Howick and Callaghan open with William Walton’s (1902-1983) Sonata, which consists of two substantial movements, essentially lyrical in style, despite the twelve-tone phrase in the second movement's theme.  The variations then give both players extended virtuosic and improvisatory passages on their own and together, and Howick immediately demonstrates a great range, with lyrical lines contrasting forensic precision in the more angular moments in the variations. This is followed by the Sonatina by William Alwyn (1905-1985). An earlier work (from c.1933) than Walton’s, Alwyn rejected the work later in his life, yet it is delightfully proportioned and melodically inventive, flowing effortlessly from its rippling opening, through the darkly lilting central Adagio, to the energetically bouncy finale. Again, Howick plays with warmth and lyricism, and both players use the full range of dynamics to great effect. Howick & Callaghan give premiere recordings here of three miniatures by Gordon Jacob (1895-1984), his sinuous Elegy, playfully virtuosic Caprice and delicate Little Dancer – all great programme fillers or encore pieces. Kenneth Leighton’s (1929-1988) Sonata No. 1 launches straight into a rich sound world with thick, swirling textures, particularly in its weighty piano part, played with command by Callaghan here, yet never overwhelming Howick’s rich tones. The slow movement’s beautiful chorale-like piano opening combines with an intensely nostalgic melodic line, and the emphatic finale nevertheless concludes with light hint of the chorale-like material. Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971) wrote Pierrette: Valse Caprice as a wedding present in 1934 for his first wife, violinist Jessie Hinchliffe, and it has a light and joyful feel, played here with great tenderness. Lennox Berkeley’s Elegy and Toccata, Op. 33 Nos 2 & 3 were written for violinist Frederick Grinke (as was No. 1 from the set, variations for solo violin, not recorded here). The Elegy is tender and expressive, whilst the Toccata has an infectious drive from beginning to end. This disc amply demonstrates a huge variety of styles and textures, beyond the expected limits of forty or so years of British composition, and Howick and Callaghan deserve credit for this well thought out programme, elegantly performed throughout.

Various. 2020. British Violin Sonatas. Clare Howick, Simon Callaghan. Compact Disc. Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0610.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, June & July 2020)

Monday, 11 May 2020

CD Reviews - May 2020

Brazilian pianist Clélia Iruzun has been joined by the Coull Quartet for a wonderful selection of ‘Treasures from the New World’ – chamber music by American composer Amy Beach (1867-1944) and Brazilian composers Henrique Oswald (1852-1931) and Marlos Nobre (b.1939). Amy Beach was an accomplished pianist, but curtailed her highly successful performing career at the request of her husband, who preferred that she concentrate only on composition. His death in 1910 allowed her to resume performing as well as composing. Her Piano Quintet dates from 1908, and is dramatic and richly Romantic. There is a clear debt to Brahms, and she even quotes from the finale of his Piano Quintet in the first movement. But there is a distinctive sound too, with dark harmonies contrasting with rhapsodic writing for the piano. The piano is centre stage in the lush, passionate central slow movement, whereas the finale has a forward drive from the opening, although once again there are dark clouds here too. Iruzun plays with suitable passion and the strings match with rich-toned energy. Henrique Oswald left Brazil to study in Italy, and stayed there for 30 years, but returned to teach in Brazil for the rest of his life. His Piano Quintet, from 1895, has a mixture of European influences, with Brahms again showing through, as well as a more French tinge, reminiscent of Fauré. The opening movement has instant propulsion, with a busy piano part alongside lyrical string writing. The Scherzo that follows is equally busy, with running, trilling figures throughout. The slow movement is much more introspective than Beach’s, with somewhat repressed darkness, and a gently lyrical central section, and the finale is emphatically decisive. Again, Iruzun and the quartet play with passion, but also bring out the more inward mood of this contrasting work. A short piece follows by contemporary Brazilian composer Marlos Nobre (b.1939), Poema XI, with its sombre swirling melody performed here with elegant warmth. Iruzun is joined by the quartet’s lead violinist, Roger Coull to end the disc with Amy Beach’s Romance for violin and piano, Op. 23 – a beautifully heartfelt miniature, with a touching simplicity, concluding this highly enjoyable programme. 

A couple of years ago I had the privilege to take part in a project with contemporary local composers, commissioned by New Music Brighton to write works drawing on or inspired by traditional folk songs, for a combination of classical and folk musicians. Brighton-based Barry Mills (b.1949) was one of the composers, and went on to record the work from that project – you can find it on his CD Interbeing Volume 6 (Claudio Records CC6044-2). Barry kindly also sent me a copy of another of his CDs, entitled Elan Valley, after the orchestral work that opens the disc. This is an atmospheric, pastoral evocation of the Welsh landscape, drawing on a Welsh folksong at its heart. The orchestration is highly effective, with shimmering, watery strings and gentle harp and woodwind writing. The orchestra here, the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra under Petr Vronsky, bring out the detail with great warmth here. They also excel in the other orchestral work here, ‘Evening Rain – Sunset’, composed for the Sussex Symphony Orchestra’s 20thanniversary in 2013. Insistent repeated rising phrases build through the first half of the piece, before a calmer second section, with overlapping chords and
successive use of the sections of the orchestra, leading to a highly atmospheric conclusion. There are three Concertos on this disc, one for Mandolin, one for Guitar and one for Mandolin and Guitar together. Mills obviously has an affinity for both instruments, and he makes good use of their melodic, rhythmic and subtle textural qualities. The double concerto is performed here by Daniel Ahlert (mandolin) and Birgit Schwab (guitar), for whom it was composed, and in its four movements, Mills contrasts the lightness of touch of the soloists with relatively simple orchestral textures, to avoid drowning out the two quiet solo instruments. The first movement has a persistent, running rhythm over built up string chords, whilst in the second movement the soloists take it in turns with solo passages, supported by the orchestra more in the background here. The ‘piercing wind’ whistles through the third movement, with racing scale passages, and the gentler final movement uses repeated rising and descending patterns passed around the orchestra and soloists. The Guitar Concerto, titled ‘The Travels of Turlough O’Carolan’, places Mills’ arrangements of folk melodies by Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738) alongside his own musical episodes evoking wind, sea, rivers, mountains and night. So sometimes the guitar (here played by Sam Brown) has the folk tune, sometimes it accompanies and in the fifth of the six movements, Under the Stars, it is totally unaccompanied. This gives Brown the chance to show a great range of the instrument’s abilities, and he is particularly impressive in that solo movement, with its harmonics and subtle strumming effects. Folksong appears again in the Mandolin Concerto, this time an Irish folk song, ‘My Singing Bird’, and evocations of bird song are abundant here, as well as shimmering strings and dark whole tone scales. 

Mills. B. 2019. Interbeing, Volume 6. Julian Broughton, Katrin Heyman, Steve Dummer, Adam Bushell, Nancy Cooley, Andrew Thurgood, Anna Cooper, Matthew Quenby, Sarah Carvalho-Dubost, Charlotte Spong, Antonia Hyatt, Sarah Newington, Nick Boston, Clive Whitburn, Ellie Blackshaw, Seána Davey, Jon Rattenbury, Brian Ashworth. Compact Disc. Claudio Records CC6044-2.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, May 2020)

Thursday, 23 April 2020

CD Reviews - March & April 2020

Michael Butten presents a delightful selection of music by John Dowland (1563-1626), the master English composer of lute music and songs. Butten uses well the richer, warmer tones of the classical guitar, whilst still preserving the simplicity of the original instrument’s lighter style, and avoiding too much weighty expression. His Pavan is a good example of this – Butten plays with a simple soulfulness, all the more touching for its restraint. The Fantasies and Fancies, of which there are six here, allow for more display of virtuosity, yet Butten keeps a lid on this, never allowing them to be become overly showy. The delightful galliard,‘Can She Excuse?’ has a joyful bounce, whereas his ‘Forlorn Hope Fancy’ has a desolate, insular intimacy. The lute can bring a greater sense of fragility, but Butten’s guitar compensates with a steady warmth of tone and cleanness of line throughout. The rapid-fire passage at the end of the ‘Tremolo’ Fancy is so unexpected and unlike anything else in Dowland’s music, and Butten relishes the challenge of its brief virtuosic spotlight. Order is restored in the stately and mournful ‘Loth to Depart’, although this too develops into an expressively intricate gem. There are lighter moments, such as the short and sweet jig, ‘Mrs Winter’s Jump' and the humorous 'Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe’, delivered with lightness and subtle with by Butten. The wonderfully chromatic fantasia, ‘Farewell’, that concludes Butten’s selection allows him to demonstrate further his control and skill, at the same time as bringing out the depths of expression in this fabulous music. For Dowland played on guitar, you can’t go far wrong with this.

The brothers Carl Heinrich Graun (1704-1759) and Johann Gottlieb Graun (1703-1771), whilst largely forgotten today were well known in their respective fields during their lifetimes. The younger brother, Carl Heinrich, was closely associated with Frederick the Great of Prussia and his court, as well as being an accomplished tenor and opera composer, achieving fame as Berlin’s Opera Kapellmeister. Johann Gottlieb on the other hand was a virtuoso violinist, and studied with Pisendel and Tartini, working as Frederick’s chamber musician, as well as leading Berlin’s Opera orchestra. But the Portuguese Early Music group, Ludovice EnsembleJoana Amorim on traverso (Baroque flute) and Fernando Miguel Jalôto on harpsichord – draw attention away from their grander compositions. In a 2 disc set, ‘Del Signor Graun’, the offer a selection from the vast number of Trio Sonatas that the pair composed. A trio sonata consists of two melodic lines along with a continuo accompaniment – but confusingly, one of the melodic lines can be taken by the continuo player (described as ‘obbligato’), resulting in effect in a duet. So here we have six such sonatas, with one melodic line on flute, and the harpsichord taking the second melodic line as well as providing the accompaniment. The brothers wrote around 130 trio sonatas between them, although it is hard to be sure which brother wrote many of them, with ambiguous ascriptions such as ‘Graun’ or ‘Signr. Graun’. Nevertheless, these are delightful pieces, showing a great deal of invention, and nicely transitioning the late Baroque into early Classical styles. Nearly all in three movements, the formula is generally a slow, stately opening movement, ending with an improvisatory passage followed by two faster movements, the finale often a 3-time dance-like movement. Amorim and Jalôto match their melodic lines well, taking over from each other in the frequent exchanges of ideas, as well as enjoying the moments when the two parts align more in a duet. There are beautiful moments of more Bachian counterpoint in the additional slow movement of No. 56, whilst delicate trilling features in the sprightly Allegretto of No. 110. The players give the gentle slow movements graceful poise, and inject welcome energy into the faster movements, such as No. 56’s Allegro. There are no fireworks here, but plenty of subtle delicacy and invention, making for a highly enjoyable listen. 

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) was active in the woman’s suffrage movement, and her composition career was very successful (Clara Schumann was in fact one of her greatest supporters), although she faced much prejudice during her life, her music being either deemed ‘too masculine’ or ‘too feminine’, depending on whether it was dramatic, rhythmic and powerful, or lyrical and melodic. However, she achieved success with a number of larger scale works – but her smaller-scale repertoire, including a significant number of songs, is largely unknown. Lucy Stevens (contralto), along with pianist Elizabeth Marcus, aims to put that right with a collection of Songs and Ballads, including two sets from early in her career and two from much later. The Op. 3 ‘Lieder und Balladen’ are recorded for the first time here in Smyth’s own English translation, written in pencil on the original manuscript. Smyth had settled in Leipzig to study, and it was there she became known to Clara Schumann, as well as Brahms, Dvořák and Grieg. Apparently, when composer George Henschel presented a couple of Smyth’s songs to Brahms, he wouldn't believe they were hers, stating that Henschel himself must have composed them – it just wasn’t conceivable that a ‘young lady’ had composed them! The Op. 3 set combine images of nature with themes of lost love, and range from the tender ‘On the Hill’, through darker sadness and grief in ‘It changes what we’re seeing’, to the folksy story-telling of ‘Fair Rohtraut’. Stevens’ contralto voice is bright and pure, and she excels in the more tender, gentle moments of Smyth’s lyrical writing. The Op. 4 set of Lieder features themes of motherhood (Smyth dedicated the set to her own mother) and sleep, even nightmares. Stevens brings out the sense of struggle in ‘Night Thoughts’, and Marcus enjoys the most harmonically adventurous accompaniment of the set in ‘Midday Rest’. Shifting forward some thirty years brings us to the wonderful Four Songs for voice and chamber orchestra, here recorded with the Berkeley Ensemble, conducted by Odaline de la Martinez. Martinez was the first woman to conduct a BBC Prom (shockingly as late as 1984), and conducted an historic performance of Smyth’s opera The Wreckers at the Proms in 1994. The songs are scored for single strings, flute, harp and percussion, and Smyth’s orchestration here is exquisite. The harp/flute combination figures highly, but she adds sensuously lyrical strings and accents of imaginative percussion, such as tambourine in ‘The Dance’ and a drum in the dramatic ‘Anacreontic Ode’. Debussy described the set as ‘tout à fait remarquables’. Stevens’ bright tone is clear as a bell, although occasionally a little more variety of tone would bring out the contrasts, such as the gentle sadness of Chrysilla. Finally, Three Songs, from 1913, pick up on Smyth’s commitment to and involvement with the suffragette movement. She met (and fell in love with) Emmeline Pankhurst, and the second of these songs, Possession, is dedicated to her. The words are by the suffragette writer Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, as is the text of the final song, On the Road: A Marching Tune, dedicated to Emmeline’s daughter, Christabel. Possession picks up on ideas of captivity – Smyth was herself imprisoned for two months for throwing a stone through a cabinet minister’s window. The relentless march of the third song builds to an emphatically triumphant climax, with a quotation from Smyth’s own The March of the Women, which became the Women’s Social and Political Union’s official anthem. Stevens communicates the passion of these songs, and the final battle cry has a powerful impact.

Clarinettist Dimitri Ashkenazy is joined by friends Robin Sharp and Mechthild Karkow (violins), Jennifer Anschel (viola) and Gundula Leitner (cello) for a recording of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet, Op. 115. It is one of the works of Brahms’ Indian summer of composition, after he had decided to stop composing, but had fallen in love with the clarinet, inspired by Richard Mühlfield of the Meiningen Court Orchestra. It is a masterpiece of nostalgia, sadness and exquisite beauty. Ashkenazy and friends choose sound tempi, and the finale is definitely con moto – not always the case. This is a warm rendition, and Askenazy’s tone is tender and rounded, matched with strong ensemble from the string players. There is passion in the turbulent second movement here, however, with appropriate shrillness at the high end. The return of the first movement’s theme at the end of the finale is particularly touching and sensitive. Lebanese composer Houtaf Khoury’s (b.1967) quintet, Gardens of Love, was written for Joan Enric Lluna and the Brodsky Quartet in 2009. It is a contemplative piece, opening with a beautifully lyrical melody for the clarinet, backed with simple, gentle strings. The harmonies occasionally darken, and then proceedings halt on quiet string chords, as the clarinet’s ornamented lines become more insistent. Intensity builds, and there are moments where the string players break through briefly, but the clarinet essentially takes centre stage here in this highly effective single movement work. 

A highlight of the 2018 Brighton Festival was Cuckmere: A Portrait, Cesca Eaton’s film depicting a year in the life of the River Cuckmere and Haven with live score by Ed Hughes (b.1968), performed by the Orchestra of Sound and Light. The recording of that performance has now been released as part of Time, Space and Change, bringing together three works by Hughes spread over nearly 30 years of his career. Hughes is Professor of Composition at the University of Sussex, and has a wide-ranging repertoire of compositions to his name, including music for silent films by Sergei Eisenstein and Yasujiro Ozu, opera, orchestral and chamber works. Eaton’s film of the river Cuckmere is incredibly beautiful and even moving, as it pans in and out from the journey down the river’s course to the close up detail of the flora and fauna along the way. Hughes captures this in music that equally contrasts fine detail (stuttering shivers in Winter, and birdlike ripples in Spring, for example), with an overall relentless trajectory, using running scales, and gently chugging rhythms in Autumn, leading through to the final rhythmic energy of Summer, with rapid movement over a slowly rising bass line leading to a satisfying arrival at the conclusion. Having seen the film performance, the images of the beautiful landscape remain in my mind, and Hughes’ music brings them straight back in this incredibly effective piece. You can see the video with the music here. Media Vita comes from much earlier in Hughes’ composition career (1991), but was also performed first at the Brighton Festival. A piano trio, it is performed here by members of the New Music Players, founded by Hughes in 1990. The harmonic language here is dense and Hughes launches straight into motion, with intense, independently moving lines from the three instruments shifting and clashing. There is a sense of urgency, even frenzy, and an uneasy shifting of sands as the piano winds chromatically beneath slowly moving string lines. The inspiration here was the motet of the same name by John Sheppard (1515-1558), and that influence of English fifteenth and sixteenth century composers is picked up once again in the larger scale Sinfonia (2018). Here, the six movements variously draw on English folk song, as well as works by Cooke, Dunstaple, Tallis and Gibbons. Elements of the sources are used in highly imaginative ways, such as the basic chromaticisms of Cooke’s motet Stella Celi Extirpavit spaced out in time, and the diatonic harmonies of Dunstaple’s Veni Sancte Spiritus surrounded by swirling chromatic movement. There’s even a hint of car horns blaring through the urban landscape in the bouncing rhythms of In Nomine. In these six short movements, Hughes creates a fascinating soundworld with hints of earlier musical traditions within a complex tapestry of modern orchestral colours. The New Music Players, under Nicholas Smith, bring this to life with great precision and energy. 

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, March & April 2020)

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Worbey and Farrell dazzle & entertain with virtuosic piano-playing & quick-fire comedy

(Stephen Worbey & Kevin Farrell)

Sunday 1 March 2020

An interesting departure for the Brighton Philharmonic Orchestra – a concert without the orchestra! They’ve already taken steps in that direction this season, with a concert performed by just their brass section, but this was a step further, to bring back Worbey & Farrell, the piano duo who performed with the orchestra back in 2018 to great acclaim. Knowing they’ve been struggling somewhat financially, it’s clear that they’ve had to think outside the box a little. On this occasion, they definitely pulled off a deft move – something different, that no doubt brought in a much needed new audience, but that in no way could have left the BPO regulars feeling short changed. 

Stephen Worbey and Kevin Farrell met at the Royal College of Music, and have established a highly successful career playing together over many years now – today’s concert also marked Kevin’s 50thbirthday. They pull off the tricky challenge of combining humour and classical music virtuosity, the key being that they excel at both. It is a tricky mix – often classical music comedy is either just not very funny, or it relies so much on in-jokes and knowledge that it’s exclusive and smugly self-congratulatory. Neither could be said about Worbey & Farrell in any way. Their onstage patter comes across as natural, whilst their anecdotes and asides never stray too far from the music itself. And they are genuinely funny, with well-constructed gags and jokes throughout. They of course owe a debt to the likes of Victor Borge, Liberace and even Les Dawson – and these all get affection name checks. We were even treated to a smattering of Dawson’s ‘wrong notes’ playing, as well as their own arrangement of Liberace’s classic showpiece, Boogie Woogie. Here they brought in an element of audience participation, and it was noticeable that when it was the turn of the under 20s to shout out, their ‘hey’ was impressively loud, the audience containing a refreshingly high percentage of children and younger people. 

Having announced their goal, to ‘cheer up piano recitals’, early proceedings included their impressive rendition of Khachaturian’s weighty Masquerade Waltz (which they jokingly said was on their new ‘Meditation’ album), and a delicately romantic arrangement of Ennio Morricone’s Chi Mai (which listeners of a certain age will remember as the theme tune to TVs The Life and Times of Lloyd George). After this, they switched on a camera positioned to pick up the keyboard, and more importantly, their hands, projected onto a large screen behind them. This remained for the rest of the concert, and made for a mesmerising insight into the technical complication of their arrangements. They share the one piano stool, and play with their arms mostly interlinked – so not the straightforward bass/treble split of standard four hands piano duets. As they explained, and deftly illustrated with some deconstructed explanation in their arrangement of John Williams’ Superman love theme and Jurassic Park, they aim to replicate as far as possible the full orchestral colours of the pieces they arrange. So Farrell often plays percussively at the bass of the keyboard, whilst brass and bassoon textures are brought out in the baritonal ranges. Strings feature in the mid-range, and the bright woodwind at the top end. Frequently, you could see their hands intertwined as they pass the melody lines around the ‘orchestra’.

And they demonstrated their true musical expertise, both in terms of virtuosity and understanding of orchestration and arranging in the two ‘big’ pieces of their programme – their own arrangements of Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. In both, their ability to combine the lush orchestral textures and detail of instrumentation with the virtuosity of the piano ‘solo’ part is astonishing. Their choice of other main work for the second half of the concert, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf was also a masterstroke. Again, they could show off their skill in replicating orchestral colour, as well as adding their own humorous take on the tale (including a bizarrely northern duck) – and spoiler alert, they add their own happy ending!

With a few other gems thrown in for measure – Albeniz’s Asturias (Leyenda),complete with Kevin dampening the strings in the piano to replicate a guitar, as well as hammering chords from a standing position to great effect, and Piazzolla’s Libertango equally percussive – this was a hugely entertaining and action-packed programme from two highly consummate musicians as well as very funny showmen.

Saturday, 29 February 2020

CD Reviews - January & February 2020

Pianist Ivana Gavrić’s new disc begins with a sprightly performance of Haydn’s Piano Concerto No. 11, in which she is joined by the Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Karin Hendrickson. Her opening Vivace is full of energy, and the central slow movement has delightful grace and a sensitive touch. In both movements, Gavrić uses fitting cadenzas composed by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, one drawing on a Bosnian theme – more of that later. The finale is lively, and Gavrić plays with great poise and wit. Gavrić was inspired by the possibility that the concerto’s finale might have been based on a Bosnian folk melody. The melody’s origins may in fact be less authentic than we might hope, but nevertheless this led Gavrić to approach friend and collaborator Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980) to write a piano concerto using a Bosnian folk song as one of its themes, this time definitely an authentic tune, the unofficial anthem of Sarajevo (where Gavrić was born), Kad ja pođoh na Bentbašu’ (a rendition of which concludes the disc).  But first, Gavrić includes six French pieces written in 1909 to mark the 100th anniversary of Haydn’s death, as well as Frances-Hoad’s Stolen Rhythm, written using the motif of Haydn’s name a further 100 years later, in 2009. Claude Debussy’s (1862-1918) Hommage à Haydn is beautifully rich, essentially a short set of variations, whereas Paul Dukas’ (1865-1935) Prelude élégiaque is sensuously liquid, and Gavrić’s touch is delicate and warm in both, and in the brief but delightful Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) which follows. Frances-Hoad’s sparky Stolen Rhythm follows, and although again brief, it has an energetic drive, exploiting the extremes of the keyboard in its continuous rhythmic pulse. Gavrić returns to the French set, with Vincent d’Indy’s (1851-1931) relatively straightforward Menuet sur le nom d’Haydn followed by Reynaldo Hahn’s (1874-1947) Thème varié sur le nom de Haydn, a typically deft miniature, and Charles-Marie Widor’s (1844-1937) lively Fugue sur le nom d’Haydn to finish the set. Gavrić brings out the varied character of these pieces with great attention to detail, and the placing of Frances-Hoad’s contribution in the middle of the set creates a great set up for ‘Between the Skies, the River and the Hills’, a three movement piano concerto by Frances-Hoad. Frances-Hoad draws on inspiration from the Haydn Concerto, the aforementioned folk tune, and the Nobel Prize-winning historical novel The Bridge over the Drina by Ivo Andrić. The opening movement has great swirls of watery running scales from the piano under slow moving, lumbering strings and slippery woodwind, creating a very striking atmosphere from the outset. The pace quickens, as the floodwaters rise, before the sun breaks through at the end. The central scherzando has great quirky energy, with more than a whiff of Shostakovich in its dancing forward propulsion. The slow finale presents that Bosnian theme in moving simplicity, passed around the orchestra, with the piano’s interjections building in intensity and urgency, ending with an impassioned candenza, performed with incredible intensity here by Gavrić. The Bosnian theme’s poignant simplicity brings this beautifully constructed programme to a suitably sensitive conclusion. Highly recommended.


The most substantial work on a new release of works by British composer Howard Skempton (b.1947) is Man and Bat, a setting of a poem by D. H. Lawrence. Here, baritone Roderick Williams is joined by members of Ensemble 360, who feature throughout the recording. For this work, piano, string quartet and double bass provide a whirling, lilting background to the intriguing text about a man’s lengthy battle with a trapped bat. Skempton achieves a sense of insistent fluttering in the largely incessant rhythmic accompaniment, and Williams communicates the drama and understated dark humour of the text with great intensity. The collection includes another setting of a Lawrence poem, this time for tenor, within a three-movement cycle, The Moon is Flashing. The first two brief movements set poems by Skempton himself and Chris Newman, as introductions to the more substantial Lawrence poem, Snake. Originally written for full orchestra, Skempton has arranged the work for chamber ensemble, with Ensemble 360 providing clarinet, violin, cello and piano, along with tenor James Gilchrist. The titular opening movement is subtle and sensuous, whilst A Day in 3 Wipes that follows has a musical theatre flavour as Gilchrist communicates its contemporary story with directness. Snake meanwhile has dark menace, and Gilchrist shows considerable command of the depth of his range, which Skempton exploits to great effect. This is preceded by Skempton’s Piano Concerto, in a version for piano and string quartet. Set over five short movements, there is a stillness and ethereal atmosphere in the opening two, followed by a gently bouncing central movement. Ethereal mystery returns for the fourth movement, before a lightly jazzy finale. Pianist Tim Horton plays with lightness of touch and is matched with clarity of ensemble from the string quartet. The string quartet is joined by flute, clarinet and harp for the final work on the recording, Eternity’s Sunrise. Here calmness reigns, bringing the collection to a serene conclusion. If Skempton is new to you, this is a great place to start, and the performances from Williams, Gilchrist and Ensemble 360 could not provide a better advert for his atmospheric, accessible and consistently inventive music.

(Edited versions of these reviews first appeared in GScene, January & February 2020)

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

No nonsense joy in Kissin's Beethoven at the Barbican

Evgeny Kissin
© Felix Broede

Evgeny Kissin (piano)

Thursday 6 February 2020

Barbican Hall, London

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827):
Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13 'Pathétique'
15 Variations and a Fugue, Op. 35 'Eroica'
Piano Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31 No. 2 'Tempest'
Piano Sonata No. 21 in C major, Op. 53 'Waldstein'
Bagatelle for piano, Op.126 No.6 in E flat major
Six variations on an original theme for piano in D major, Op.76
Bagatelle for piano, Op.33 no. 5 in C major
Six Écossaises for piano, WoO 83

Evgeny Kissin
© Nick Boston
'Kissin took no prisoners – definitely not Beethoven for the fainthearted, yet performances full of urgent energy and evident joy in the music'.

The 'Pathétique' Sonata:
'It is a testament to Kissin’s unquestionably phenomenal technical prowess that nothing ever disrupted the momentum here'.

The Eroica Variations:
'Kissin carried us through their journey with a great sense of the overall architecture'.

'The Tempest was impatient and full of breathless energy ... The Waldstein was uncluttered and surprisingly smooth'.

Read my full review on Bachtrack here.